REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala., Aug. 4, 2011 -- Torn and tattered, stained and patched, the red-white-and-blue of the American flag never looked better or stronger or more inspiring.
Laid out across numerous tables at the Jaycees building in Huntsville's John Hunt Park on July 27, the National 9/11 Flag -- one of the largest American flags to fly above the wreckage at Ground Zero in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001 -- brought back memories of that tragic day, of the resiliency of a nation in sorrow, and of the hope that its people still hold for a world where freedom reigns and terror is no longer.
The National 9/11 Flag is on a journey across America during the year of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In each state, it conducts a stitching ceremony where local heroes and community residents add stitches that sew their state's patch to the flag as it is brought back to its original 13 stripes.
Huntsville was the location for the flag's Alabama Stitching Ceremony thanks to efforts by local defense services contractor Phoenix. Among the heroes who put in stitches was Maj. Johnathan Hurwitz, who is preparing for his third deployment in August.
"I am so very happy to be able to have been nominated to put a stitch in the flag," said Hurwitz, a former Space and Missile Defense Command employee who is now completing an assignment at the Pentagon.
"For me, it represents more than 9/11," he said. "It's about the foundation of what this country is all about. We are still a great nation. That's what this flag represents to me."
The flag, measuring 20 feet high and 30.5 feet wide, was hanging on construction scaffolding at 90 West St. just south of the World Trade Center at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Unable to be reached by recovery workers, it hung for several weeks after the attacks despite being ripped nearly to shreds by the explosion.
"It seemed to symbolize the torn and tattered American spirit," said Denny Deters, a volunteer with The New York Says Thank You Foundation.
Eventually retrieved by a construction worker, the flag remained in a storage shed in Pennsylvania for seven years. On the 9/11 anniversary in 2008, The New York Says Thank You Foundation took the flag's torn remains to Greensburg, Kan., as a symbol of hope, compassion and resilience of the American spirit during that community's recovery from a devastating tornado.
As the foundation's volunteers helped in the community, volunteer seamstresses from Greensburg's senior center began the flag's initial restoration, stitching flags salvaged from the town's destruction. The flag was displayed for the first time at the New York Says Thank You Foundation closing ceremony in Greensburg.
Since then, the flag has been further repaired using pieces of fabric from American flags destined for retirement in each state, and stitched by hundreds of people all around the nation, including Soldiers and schoolchildren who survived the shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, and World War veterans on the deck of the USS Missouri at Pearl Harbor.
In the last three months, the flag has flown at the funeral of Christina Taylor Green, the 9-year-old girl born on 9/11 who died in the Tucson, Ariz., shooting this year, been stitched by descendants of Martin Luther King Jr., made history when a piece of the American flag that cradled Abraham Lincoln's head when he was shot at Ford's Theatre was stitched into the flag, and brought together wounded warriors, first responders and members of our nation's space program to contribute a stitch at the Kennedy Space Center. More than 200 million Americans have experienced the National 9/11 Flag.
"The restoration of the flag provides an opportunity to restore the American spirit," Deters said.
Alabama is the 41st state to have a National 9/11 Flag stitching ceremony. There are nine such ceremonies left between now and Sept. 7, when a final stitching ceremony for the flag will be conducted in New York City. It will then become part of the permanent collection of the National September 11 Memorial Museum being built at the World Trade Center.
"It's a special honor to sponsor this exhibit. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see and honor this symbol of national hope," Bryan Dodson, chief executive officer for Phoenix, told a standing-room-only crowd during a program preceding the Alabama Stitching Ceremony.
The flag's visit to Alabama almost didn't happen. One of the company's employees -- Brian Dingo -- saw a program about the National 9/11 Flag on national television during the Fourth of July weekend. He told Dodson about the program and after a few phone calls it was discovered that Alabama was the only state that did not have a stitching ceremony scheduled, although attempts had been made to schedule a ceremony in Montgomery and Tuscaloosa.
"We kind of jumped on it and made it happen," Dodson said following the ceremony. "Huntsville needed to see this. It's a source of pride. And with our connection to flags (Phoenix manufactures U.S. flags at its plant in Huntsville) we felt this was something we needed to do for our community."
In his comments to those gathered to stitch the flag, Dodson likened the aftermath of 9/11 to the areas in Alabama destroyed by the April 27 tornadoes.
Following the Alabama tornadoes, the affected communities "bonded by mutual hope and were made stronger. Like 9/11, we survive and move on based on our mutual hope and pride in this great nation," Dodson said.
Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said the flag symbolizes a day in our nation's history that will never be forgotten.
"It's very fitting that we're sitting here today looking at a flag that was torn asunder when our nation, our world, was torn asunder," Battle said. "It's being stitched together by heroes, the same kind of stitching we need to bring this nation back together. We need to pull back together the fabric of our nation."
Many of the local heroes stitching the flag were overwhelmed with emotion. Those heroes included Vietnam veterans such as Purple Heart recipient Thomas Holley and Semper Fi Community Task Force president Joe Bongiovanni, the staff of Still Serving Veterans, and Afghanistan war veteran and Apache pilot Tory "Spike" Myers, mom Diannah Golden in memory of her fallen Huntsville police officer son Daniel Golden, Madison County Sheriff's officer and Operation Desert Storm veteran Steve Setzer, and Iraq war veterans Brandon Johnson and Tracey Boyd.
"It's awesome," said an emotional Boyd, a four-time Iraq war veteran and wounded warrior who works for the Logistics Support Activity.
Boyd was nominated by his daughter, Jessica.
"He doesn't get honored for very many things," Jessica Boyd said. "He was gone the first five years of my life. When he discharged from the Army, he worked two jobs to pay our bills. When I was in the marching band in high school, he was always in the stands, even with his bad knees. He still comes to all the marching band events now that I am at the University of North Alabama. He is our band photographer. He deserves this recognition. He's a hero to me."